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8 things you’ve heard if you’re ethnically ambiguous

May 22, 2018 28 Comments

I never stood out where I grew up. I looked just like every other girl that went to my high school and never got stared at in shopping malls. I was never questioned about my ethnicity or nationality… until I moved abroad. And then suddenly… it was the opening for every conversation people would have with me 😐


To give you some background if you’re new here: I grew up in South Africa, in a tropical city called Durban. So nationality-wise, I am South African. Racially- in South Africa- I would tick the box on the form saying “Indian”. Why? Because many generations ago Indians arrived in South Africa as indentured labourers in the 1860s. They were contracted to work on the sugar plantations but later also worked in coalmines, railways, dockyards, and municipal services. After 1917 the majority of the labourers became land owners on Durban’s east coast and diversified into other fields. By the 1940s, the next generation became the backbone of the emerging industrial working class in Durban, which had become home.

That’s me!

So that’s how this panda was born and bred in small corner of Africa with NO ties to any other country. But somehow my nationality, ethnicity and accent never seem to match up for people who have so many questions… and so many comments! Have you ever heard any of these?


1. “Where are you from? Wait let me guess…”


I’ve been offered some strange guesses to this question. Indian, Pakistani & Sri Lankan makes sense based on my ancestry. British comes up often and it seems reasonable to me based on my accent. But when I was in Europe I also got mistaken for Spanish A LOT (no hablo espanõl!), I’ve been asked if I’m Trinidadian (?) and most frequently where I work, I am constantly mistaken for being a local Arab.


Side note: Once someone told me that I looked Mexican and a rude colleague leaned over and said, “She’s not pretty enough to be Mexican!



2. “No, where are you really from? Like REALLY?”


Wait I already answered this. So, this question implies two things: that I don’t resemble my heritage AND I’m a liar. Awesome.


3. “You don’t look like you’re South African at all. Like, I NEVER would have guessed that. Not in a million years.”

So what you’re saying is that I don’t fit your preconceptions of what certain nationalities look like. You’re making yourself look bad…




4. “Why don’t you speak [insert foreign language that has nothing to do with my background]?”


This just happened to me last week at a hair salon actually…. I spent far too much time explaining to the Argentinian stylists that despite what they thought, “I don’t speak Spanish.” Look- I grew up in a former British colony where our schools are English medium. Why should I feel apologetic that I am not fluent in a language you think I should be fluent in based on your perception of my appearance?



Another famous scenario is when strangers start asking me for help on the street in their native tongues. The most recent incident of this was the Sri Lankan man standing outside the temple in Dubai asking me something in fluent Singhalese.



  1. Do you speak English?

On the other end of the spectrum is this situation-

Me: I will need two tickets please and I would like to join the English tour.

Person behind the counter: Sure. Here’s your change… you want to join the English tour? Do you speak English?

Why would I ask for an English tour if I didn’t speak English?

Also, didn’t we just have a conversation in English?  



6.  “You’re so EXOTIC”



This compliment is one of the reasons I never date white men. Somehow this compliment always finds its way out of the mouths of people named Dave, Josh, Richard, Tony… you get the picture. Look, I feel strange being classified by an adjective that is usually used to describe captive animals or alien plants. Please don’t think you are complimenting me when you call me ‘exotic”. Also, refrain from pet names that reference food and beverages. Don’t know what I am talking about? Things I’ve been called range from ‘brown sugar”, “milk chocolate”, all the way to a guy who just called me “caramel”.




7. “You’re so smart… for a girl from Africa”


It happened to me on a date.

So I ordered an expensive lobster.

Then I made an excuse, swiftly exited and left him with the hefty bill.




8. “Why are those men wearing turbans? Is that what men wear in your culture?”


Not every person with brown skin is ‘from my culture”. Sikhism- which is a religion by the way- has nothing to do with me. I literally don’t know a single Sikh person in reality. So instead of asking me dumb questions, go open a book Becky.



In the end…

Despite the rampant curiosity and silly questions, I do enjoy the thrill of being hard to place. The countries that I have travelled to where I have been mistaken for a local far outnumber the countries where I’ve been asked if I was a refugee or been perceived as a gypsy. From Egypt to Malaysia, I have been blessed to keep my mouth closed and pay local prices for goods and entrance fees. I will never forget paying 40 rupees to enter the Taj Mahal once and thinking “Wow this is cheap” only to realise that non-locals were paying 1000 rupees!


As people stare at me, trying to place me and figure out ‘what I am’, I smile inwardly… I move from country to country spreading my African magic, glitter and gold so yeah I am going to expect a few broken necks as people try to stare.


So have a good look or take a picture because I am a cultural chameleon both blending in, and standing out wherever I go!


Have you ever been confused for another nationality or ethnicity? Let me know in the comments below!


Peace out pandas car



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  • Shahnaaz Naby May 22, 2018 at 12:25 pm

    SO MUCH YES! 👌🏼

    • Expat Panda May 27, 2018 at 10:01 am

      Glad you enjoyed it and identified 😀

  • MoMo @ Remnants of Wit May 22, 2018 at 3:58 pm

    This was hilarious–perfect usage of gifs too! I’m usually mistaken for being all-white (instead of half), Middle Eastern, Italian, I think Indian one time… but when people hear my last name they usually figure out that I’m half Hispanic haha

    • Expat Panda May 27, 2018 at 10:02 am

      But you know I never understand the need to classify people anyway… why make assumptions based on your last name in the 1st place? People confuse me.

  • higgledypiggledymom May 22, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    Well done!

  • chirose May 22, 2018 at 8:54 pm

    I love your comment about spreading your South African magic, glitter and gold !! So much Awesome! 🙂

    Personally, I’ve always enjoyed being a little mysterious and hard to place. And I get a big thrill from being spoken to in the native language when I travel. 🙂 <3 I've always joked I could have been a spy and secretly blended in everywhere I went.

    I'm sure some people are clueless. But I know speaking from my own point of view – I'm so excited about learning about other people and other cultures, and especially the combining of different cultures together. I think it makes life more interesting. Thank you for sharing your personally history and of South Africa's history. I learned something new today and I enjoyed it immensely. 🙂

    • Expat Panda May 27, 2018 at 10:04 am

      Thank YOU for reading and sharing your opinion. Also, you gave me a new career move as a SPY! I never thought of it that way! I definitely do love being confused for a local and learning about other cultures too so we have that in common 😀

      • chirose June 19, 2018 at 7:38 pm

        Of course! Your adventures are amazing!! I thoroughly enjoy reading about them 🙂 And yes, I think I’ve watched too many spy movies!! LOL 😀 Being confused as a local to me makes me feel more like a global citizen or a world traveler rather than a tourist. But that’s just me! Keep traveling! I can’t wait to read more about your journey!

  • NN May 22, 2018 at 9:48 pm

    Great post, your gifs are so funny! 😀 I have heard almost all of these too…as a South African with quite a few different nationalities in my family tree (Irish, German, Dutch, French etc). I most commonly get confused for a German, so in countries that get a lot of German tourists, people trying to sell things often start talking to me in German. Even if I’ve been speaking English, which is a strange feeling. In Greece I tried to explain to a waiter that I was not German, but at the end of the meal he still said “Auf wiedersehen” (!). Often when people ask where I’m from and I say South Africa, the reply is often “but you’re so pale” or “but where were you born” or “where are you from originally” 🙁

    • Expat Panda May 27, 2018 at 10:06 am

      I think this is the curse of South Africans who aren’t black… and in reverse black people from Western countries have the same problem because surely all Africans are black and all Americans are white? No? Seriously? It comes from an issue of under representation in the mass media… if people from Africa would stop being portrayed as spear wielding tribal dwellers and as a more diverse population then I think these assumptions would slowly fade away!

  • Dallas May 23, 2018 at 1:45 am

    I love the part where you mentioned; blessed keeping your mouth closed! I wish I could keep mine closed!
    Something to learn – and I love how you spread your magic, glitter and gold – I love to spread my colourful rainbow 🌈 .

    I am from NZ and yes I have brown skin and dark hair. Because Iam short, I am mistaken for a Philippine or some other Asian country.

    When I explain I am from NZ, oh you live with the All Blacks rugby team!! What!! Yes – most people believe every NZ person lives with the All Blacks or we live in big flash houses – not this one :).

    Over time I have learnt not to get upset because of my colour and height. But to embrace everything the good lord has given me.

    God bless and keep the blogs coming.


    • Expat Panda May 27, 2018 at 10:09 am

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment Dallas! People will always place you where they think you belong based on your facial features and skin colour which is really irritating… but as you said, the trick is not get upset! Also, most people don’t have a clue about anything in New Zealand other than the All Blacks… how would every NZ person live with the All Blacks? The team isn’t big enough HAHA.

  • Britta May 23, 2018 at 11:11 pm

    My paternal great grandfather was born in Greece, and I have a slightly darker complexion than the average White American. I have had SO many people come up to me and ask me where I’m from. They assume Eastern Europe, and one man was very specific in assuming I was from Albania. They are always so surprised when I tell them I was born and raised in America (which is ridiculous, because America is a nation built on immigrants…and there are people of many different colors and complexions who live here). I’ve also had people ask me if I’m Jewish (I am not). I’m always amazed at what some people think is okay to ask others.

    • Expat Panda May 27, 2018 at 10:12 am

      You are so right, its simply crazy what people think they know and can ask… in today’s world, with the ease of migration and abundance of flights, people relocate all the time so as a society, we should really be more aware of all kinds of diversity! Yet people just make assumptions and it becomes frustrating 🙁

    • Tess August 12, 2021 at 4:23 pm

      America is a nation built on Indigenous people of the Americas, European Immigrants, and a mixture of Descendants of African nations who were kidnapped and sent as slave labor.

  • LoriKemi May 28, 2018 at 11:16 am

    Ha! This was quite interesting to read because, although I am not at all ethnically ambiguous (I’m black with dark skin), people can never really tell where I’m from based on my accent… So I’ve heard/ been told several things you mentioned including “you’re so exotic” when I explained my background in detail… I wonder why we, as a collective group of people, always try to put people in boxes and categories — when people tell us who they are and where they’re from we just have to believe them. ||

    • Expat Panda July 2, 2018 at 7:56 am

      I think that black people are considered intriguing by the rest of the world especially if they cannot place your accent (which most people can’t because a black person from South Africa sounds totally different to a black person for Nigeria). I wonder the same thing about people- why we have to put them into a box based on their nationality, ethnicity or race- I would say its because this helps us understand them but actually… it really doesn’t!

  • Riana.AngCanning June 1, 2018 at 2:18 am

    I am totally feeling this post! And loving the gifs! I’m half Chinese and half Caucasian, which isn’t a super wild mix or anything. But have definitely had my fair share of strange comments and silly questions. I’m sorry that some of yours are so offensive (the smart one is brutal – good for you for leaving him with the bill!).

    And total side note: I visited Durban a few years ago and it was such an amazing trip! Had no idea that such a huge Indian population lived there. We really loved our time in Durban!

    • Expat Panda July 2, 2018 at 7:57 am

      Why am I only finding this comment now? I am so glad you loved your time in Durban! And sorry that you’ve had some strange comments too.. the way I see it, at least we have some good stories to share!

  • Victoria June 3, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Hahaha! and the gifs to match! I love the question of “No, where are you really from?” and the follow up of “okay well where are your parents from?” it always gets a chuckle out of me. Also I’m glad you got up from that date. He learned just how smart you really are.

    I’ve been trying this new thing of asking people “Are you from here?” when I travel rather than where are you from if they don’t fit the stereotypical look of the region. A black girl in Amsterdam was shocked and delighted that I asked that because she was born and raised there her whole life yet everyone always assumes shes from somewhere else.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Expat Panda July 2, 2018 at 7:59 am

      I think you just changed my perspective big time! Asking someone, “Are you from here?” definitely has more positive connotations and allows for the person to volunteer their answer instead of forcing them into it by asking, “Where are you from?”. I love this! Thank you!

  • spicyessence June 29, 2018 at 6:56 pm

    This happened to me more in Kuwait than any other place! How come your English accent is different?

    The best is facing racism by Indians! I just recently got asked why I don’t speak Hindi because of course ALL Indians are supposed to… 😰

    • Expat Panda July 2, 2018 at 8:01 am

      I too am questioned a lot by Indian people about why my English is so good. Sri Lankans also look at me strangely when they hear me speak. Kuwait was the worst place for this sort of thing; for some reason the society there made people hyper aware of their passport which makes no sense. It isn’t as bad in other gulf countries.

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  • nidahash January 9, 2020 at 2:11 am

    I don’t think in todays time we can judge a person’s nationality by the way they look. Hasn’t the world become a melting pot ? Aren’t we all over the place ?

    • expatpanda January 10, 2020 at 10:27 am

      While that’s the way people should think, it’s not the reality I’ve experienced.

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